During the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign, the online design community devoted a lot of pixels to comparisons of the two candidate’s web sites (a few great examples here, here, and here). The overall consensus was that Obama won the war for eyeballs by emphasizing design, web usability, multimedia, and robust social networking. According to an in-depth study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Obama’s online network was over five times larger than McCain’s by election day and his site was drawing almost three times as many unique visitors each week.
There is no doubt that the web has fundamentally transformed the way political campaigns are run. Voters are no longer tied to traditional media outlets for information and they can participate directly in a campaign in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago. Adam Nagourney, columnist for the New York Times, summed it up nicely:
[The Internet has] rewritten the rules on how to reach voters, raise money, organize supporters, manage the news media, track and mold public opinion, and wage — and withstand — political attacks.
So, with the next campaign season gearing up, what technology-driven changes can we expect for 2012? If the rumblings are true, this election may see the ascendancy of data science as a formal part of the campaign toolkit.
In a recent CNN article, Micah Sifry wrote about the Obama campaign’s establishment of a “multi-disciplinary team of statisticians, predictive modelers, data mining experts, mathematicians, software developers, general analysts and organizers.” The article goes on to discuss the importance of data harmonization (a fancy term for master data management), geo-targeting, and integrated marketing.
Obama may be struggling in the polls and even losing support among his core boosters, but when it comes to the modern mechanics of identifying, connecting with and mobilizing voters, as well as the challenge of integrating voter information with the complex internal workings of a national campaign, his team is way ahead of the Republican pack.
All this has some GOP supporters concerned. Martin Avila, a Republican technology consultant, states in the same article that he doesn’t think that anyone on the opposing side fully understands the power of organizing and analyzing all of this data. According to Avila, the current GOP use of information technology is still largely shaped by its pre-Internet experience in broadcast advertising.
In some ways, this cavalier attitude toward the value of data shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. One trait that many members of the so-called “party of business” share with executives in the private sector is a strong attachment to a “gut based” approach to making decisions.
A recent Accenture Analytics survey of over 600 managers at more than 500 companies found that senior managers rarely used data-driven analysis when making key business decisions and instead relied heavily on intuition, peer-to-peer consultation, and other soft factors. According to the study, 50% of companies weren’t even structured in a way that would allow them to use data and analytical talent to generate enterprise-wide insight. In addition, those organizations that did make analytics-based decisions often depended on inconsistent, inaccurate, or incomplete data.
Savvy voters, like savvy customers, have come to expect a certain level of performance and consistency from the IT systems they use. This is bad news for businesses that still think that things like social media, data analytics, and master data management are gimmicks:
Organizations that fail to tackle the issues around data, technology and analytics talent will lose out to the high-performing 10 percent who have leveraged predictive analytics to become more agile and gain competitive advantage.
Creating a structured program for better targeting and more efficient communications seems like a no-brainer these days, but, for now, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of competition.
[UPDATE 1/30/2012: Slate recently published an article that talks about the different philosophies guiding the development of Democratic and Republican voter databases.
Catalist, an independent data initiative, is focused less on profit and more on becoming "an indispensable tactical resource for the American left" with a privately-funded data warehouse containing records of the entire voting-age population combined with other commercially available data. It's customers include many traditionally liberal groups who consider the Democratic National Committee's database insufficient. In response, the DNC has stepped up development of its own database, the Voting List Management Cooperative (or "Co-op"). In order to take advantage of the increased desire for voter information, the DNC has also developed statistical models that are particularly valuable for candidates.
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee established the Data Trust, a private company filled to the brim with former RNC staffers and committee members. The goal of this organization is to create robust voter profiles that can be shared with political allies. However, because of concerns about outside influence, the RNC is modeling it more along the lines of the DNC's data co-operative instead of the more independent Catalist. The Data Trust development model is also less focused on data mining activities and more on basic data.]
[UPDATE 7/17/2012: Another Slate article. This one covers the Romney campaign's attempt to boost its analytics efforts. Their initial approach appears to center on trying to figure out the President's strategy by tracking his movements and breaking down his ad buys. This seems pretty reactive to me but time will tell.]